Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Successful Friends.

I'm not sure if writing this particular post is a good idea, or if I'll be able to actually capture in words what I'm thinking about at the moment, but I think the subject matter is actually one of those really important aspects of being a writer which is rarely, or never, discussed, so I'm going to have a bash at it. I'm hoping it won't seem too self-involved or whiney. Please bear with me, if you have the patience...

It's a funny thing, this writing game.

When I first got into this business, just after UQP accepted 'The Darkness', but before it had even hit the shelves, I had a long chat with James Moloney. It was a great conversation, and one I remember to this day. We talked about all sorts of things - what I hoped to achieve, where I thought writing might take me, what type of writer I wanted to be.

Jim did me the enormous favour of asking me a lot of the questions which people new to the publishing business really need to be asked. Hard questions. Important questions.

He asked me things like; "How are you going to deal with bad reviews?" (not, you'll note, 'what will you do if you get some bad reviews?' but, 'How will you deal with it WHEN it happens?')

He asked me; "What will you respond when someone tells you to your face that they didn't particularly like your book."

We discussed "What will you do when you miss out on an award which you really thought you'd win?"

And he asked me; "How will you deal with other people's success?"*

It was, I think, one of the most important discussions of my life. I owe Jim an enormous debt of thanks for making me really confront some of these darker aspects of the relationship between writing and ego, early on in my career.

Because the answers to those questions can, in many ways, define the writer you become. So much of this writing world is about rejection, in some form or another - from the moment you get your first form letter from a publisher, to the moment you miss out on a shortlisting, or get overlooked in a writers festival program, or miss out on your fifth or sixth consecutive grant application**.

And it can be even more subtle, even more insidious: One of the conversations I hate the most in the world is when I'm out in company and someone mentions that I'm 'a writer'. Generally nowadays if people ask me 'what do you do for a living?' I just tell them I'm an academic, and try and move the conversation on as fast as possible. Often, though, it'll come out that I'm a writer, and the inevetable follow up question is 'What have you written?'

It's never the questioner's fault that they haven't read any of my books, or heard of me. There are millions of books out there, after all, and I'm the first to admit that mine aren't generally well known. And there are plenty of writers out there who I wouldn't recognise from a bar of soap. And, for all that, it's not like I feel the need for my work to be recognised by everyone. But I still really hate that moment; the blank look of 'failure-to-register' which usually flickers across someone's face when told a couple of my titles is, to be brutally honest, horrible. Crushing.

It's irrational, I know. Egocentric, certainly. But horrible nonetheless.

But it's something which - I suspect - every writer experiences. And with it comes the feeling that you're wasting your life. That you don't have any real talent. That the last thing you wrote was pointless, and that the thing you're currently working on will be worse.

George Orwell summed it up best. In his seminal essay 'Why I Write', he attributed his drive to be 'a writer' to four central influences, all of which - in different proportions - play a part in driving a writer to pursue his or her craft, often at the expense of other aspects of their life.

The first of these, he suggests, is 'sheer egoism'.
...Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc etc. It is humbug to pretned that this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristing with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen - in short, wiht the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they abandon individual ambition - in many cases, indeed, they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all - and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, wilful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self centred than journalists, though less interested in money... (1968:3)
I can't say that I disagree with Orwell's take on the role of the ego. (Though it's important to add that ego is only part of the mix. He also suggests that 'Aesthetic enthusiasm, Historical Impulse and Political Purpose are the three other driving influences behind a writer's writings, and this works fine for me. Although I also think you can make a pretty good argument for 'ego' being the driving force behind each of them, too...)

Every writer I know has an ego. It's not a bad thing. It's actually one of the tools of the trade and, as Orwell suggested, an essential one. It's ego which keeps you going in the face of the lukewarm or downright bad reviews - especially important in this age of 'Goodreads' and 'Amazon', where everyone has the right and capacity to publish their opinions on everything. It's ego that helps you ignore the little voice in the back of your head which whispers 'this is shit' in your ear as you write. It's ego that helps steady your hand when you click your Manuscript off to a publisher, or an agent, for the first time. It's ego that calms your nerves when you step on stage at a writer's festival, or just in a local library talking to a book club.

So yes, it's a tool. Part of the toolbox. But it's a tool which can get out of control and do a lot of damage. A little like an angle grinder. Your ego can also - if you let it - tear you apart, make you crave acceptance, make you expect certain privileges, make you view other people's successes as your own failings and, in short, can make you into a not very nice person to be around. It can make you say things you later regret, come off as arrogant or just downright rude. It can make you behave in ways you can't believe, looking back. I've been guilty of all these in the course of my writing career.

But - and this is the important part - it doesn't have to be all doom and gloom, and it's important to remember that. It's all a matter of perspective, which is why the questions that Jim asked me, way back in 1998, were so important.

Take that last one, for example. "How will you deal with other people's success?"

This one's a biggie. It can, I suspect, either make or break a writer, and it's one of those things you have to make a conscious decision about. You have to, I think, decide that you're going to celebrate other writer's successes, and not take personally the fact that your own works might not be getting the same recognition. That way lies madness. And the bottom line is that someone else's success, or talent, or ability, shouldn't (doesn't) have any impact at all on the value of your own work. I don't love my books any more, or any less when they win or miss out on awards. It's not like I'd have written them any differently (the book of mine which I think is one of the best stories I've ever written is also the one that never even got a shortlisting for a single award, is still on its first print run and which never really took off here in Australia, and yet I wouldn't change a word of it.)

When I started writing seriously, I made two good friends early on in the piece. (Actually, I made a lot of good friends, but I'm going to concentrate on two in particular). One was a young bloke named Markus, who was about my age, has a similar sense of humour to me, and who Imogen and I really clicked with during a literature festival out in Ipswich one weekend. The other was an illustrator- a guy named Shaun, who'd done a couple of books with my friend Gary Crew, and was - like me - a Perth boy. I actually bought a couple of Shaun's early artworks, because I liked them so much.***

A couple of days ago, Shaun was awarded the Astrid Lindgren prize, which is quite good. He also won another rather good prize earlier this year...

Markus, in 2005, penned a little book which, among other things, went to #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list. A few weeks ago it was mentioned on the brilliant sitcom 'Modern Family'.

All of which, let's face it, is awesome. Shaun and Markus are two of the nicest people I know, and two of the most talented, and I can't think of anyone else more deserving of the accolades they've received. You'd have to be a fairly self involved tosser to say otherwise.

But - and this is, I guess, the point of this long ramble - I'd be lying if I didn't admit to a couple of moments of - not jealousy or envy - but wistfulness. A couple of moments when I've watched these mates of mine achieving the most incredible things and wondered if perhaps I should have done some things differently. Wondered if, perhaps, I'm not as good a writer as I think I am (I'm pretty sure I'm not, actually...)

Do I begrudge my successful friends their wins? Of course not. If nothing else, the 'trickle down' effect means that their success is good for every other YA and children's writer. Including me. And watching their achievements has made me reassess a few of the decisions I've made in my writing career, and decide to - better late than never - remedy them.

More importantly, it's much more fun being able to revel in other people's successes. Much, much more fun. It's much nicer at the end of the day to go to bed delighted for your colleagues than it is wishing it was you.

And when the little ego voice cuts in, it's also a vital skill to be able to silence it and, in my experience, one of the best ways of doing this is to make that conscious decision to celebrate your field of practice and everyone involved in it, and not to treat it as a competition.

Which is what I try to do nowadays, with everything. And it helps turn those wistful moments into something positive, something useful.

So big (HUGE) congrats to Shaun, for both his Academy Award (BTW, if you haven't seen his film of 'The Lost Thing', then you really need to do yourself a favour and get your hands on it.) and for his winning of the Astrid Lindgren Prize. I can't think of a more deserving winner.

*I should mention that I am, for readability purposes, paraphrasing his questions into neat little bundles here, but all this was discussed in a conversation that lasted more than a couple of hours...
** All of these are based on experience, sadly.

*** Which turned out to be a really good decision.

5 comments:

  1. What a very brave post to write, Tony. I was told long ago, that there will always be someone who does something better than you. You can't change that, so you should always just try to be the very best YOU can be, and that, in itself, will be enough. You have so many fans... your work IS enough. xx

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  2. I think these feelings are very common but it's not something that we talk about very often.

    I find Alain De Botton's book Status Anxiety very soothing on the topics of success, dealing with criticism and comparing ourselves to others. Which is why I was a bit disappointed when he went off his nut about a bad review in the New York Times.

    In terms of the success of friends - you're right, the celebratory route is definitely the only way to go. And why shouldn't you celebrate being part of glittering cohort as if like Bloomsbury set?

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  3. Tony: a brilliant, thoughtful and honest post that will give many of us pause. But, may I just say that I have only ever found you, as my writing sounding board and friend, to be wise and incredibly generous - towards me and our other writer friends. Thank you.

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  4. Yes, very honest and thoughtful, thank you.

    I think it's easier when our successful friends (like Markus and Shaun) are genuinely talented and totally deserve their praise and rewards. I imagine it might be more difficult if one of my close friends had written a book that I didn't think was any good (say, about vampires), but that became an international ridiculous bestseller and earnt her a squillion dollars.

    Because when I see talented writer friends get massively successful, I do get that wistful niggle, but I also feel motivated. It makes me want to be a better writer. But that niggle might be much more powerful if I already thought I WAS a better writer.

    And I suppose that's where it comes back to ego. I always say that to be a writer you have to balance between thinking that you're AWESOME and everyone deserves to read what you have to say -- and thinking that you're rubbish and everyone else is better and that you have to work really really hard in order to make it. And if you swing too far to either side, you won't ever be a great writer.

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  5. Thanks for the lovely comments, guys. I should add that I wasn't fishing for compliments (but they're nice to get, in any case...) but it just struck me as something that was probably common to all of us, but which is never really talked about.

    Karen (Blossombooks) - you're dead right about there always being someone better. That's a key thing to remember, really.

    Penny - I haven't read the ADB book, but I've popped it onto my wishlist and will chase it up. Thanks for the recomendation.

    Karen B - Awww... shucks.

    and Lili - That's so true; the fact that these two in particular are both so talented, and also so down to earth and humble makes it so easy to celebrate. I think I'd find the 'vampire scenario' more difficult. But I like to think I'd find something positive in it to celebrate. I think you have to. The one I really struggle with are celebrities who bash out a children's book as a part of their income stream. Those I find difficult...

    And you're dead right about the balancing act. It's all about balance, as with so many things in life.

    Thanks all of you for such thoughtful comments.

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